LONDON — Brexit talks between Britain’s two main political parties collapsed in a heap of finger-pointing Friday, with opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saying the “weakness and instability” of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government had damaged negotiations.
With her own Conservative Party lawmakers openly demanding a timetable for her departure, not a day goes by without Britain’s political class guessing when May will leave office. Will it be next month? Or July? Or October?
May has promised to offer a date soon.
In the tragicomedy that is Brexit, the latest narrative casts a deeply unpopular, fatally wounded but principled prime minister doing all she can to get her unpopular Brexit deal passed in the House of Commons.
May said this week that she will seek an unprecedented fourth vote on her withdrawal treaty — you read that number right — in early June. The first three attempts ended in failure.
The Financial Times caught the sacrificial-lamb vibe with this headline: “Theresa May offers herself up to save Brexit deal.”
For the past six weeks, May and Corbyn have engaged in cross-party talks in hopes of finding a compromise that could break the Brexit deadlock and win a vote in Parliament.
Many saw it as doomed from the start — and a cynical play for time by both sides.
On Friday, Corbyn pulled the plug.
Labour members said they were uncomfortable striking a deal with a Conservative leader who could be gone within weeks.
“The increasing weakness and instability of your government means there cannot be confidence in securing whatever might be agreed between us,” Corbyn wrote.
May’s position as prime minister is as precarious as it’s ever been. Her Conservative Party received a drubbing in local elections this month and is expected to do poorly in next week’s European Parliament elections, with opinion polls suggesting that the Tories will get trounced by Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party.
May has agreed to discuss a timetable for her departure after Parliament votes on Brexit legislation in the first week of June.
If she defies the odds and wins that vote, it would be the political comeback of the century. If she loses, then plans could be made for her orderly departure.
But just because the starting gun hasn’t been fired on the leadership race to succeed May doesn’t mean that it’s not already happening, at least unofficially.
On Thursday, Boris Johnson, Britain’s ambitious former foreign secretary and a leading Brexiteer, said what everybody in Westminster knew already: He was going for it.
A Tory leadership contest for a new prime minister could last several months. From a possible field of a dozen candidates, Conservative lawmakers will narrow the race to two, and then the 125,000 Tory members will get their pick. The vote does not go to the general public.
In a letter to the prime minister, Corbyn said that their Brexit talks had “gone as far as they can” and that the race to find her successor had undermined the process.
He added that “while there are some areas where compromise has been possible, we have been unable to bridge important policy gaps between us.”
Corbyn’s Labour sought the softest sort of Brexit, one that would have kept Britain so closely aligned with E.U. customs rules and tariffs that it probably would have been unable to seek its own independent trade deals with countries such as the United States, China and India. That was a red line for May — and a Brexit that hard-liners would never approve.
Speaking at a rally in Bristol, May blamed the failure of the talks on Labour’s position on Brexit, which many find ambiguous.
Although the two sides did find some common ground, May said, “we haven’t been able to overcome the fact that there isn’t a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit or hold a second referendum, which could reverse it.”
It was long expected that talks between May and Corbyn would end in tears.
Striking a deal risked tearing apart the Conservative and Labour parties, both of which have factions that would be deeply uncomfortable with a compromise.
On Labour’s side, there were critics who were uneasy about being seen to help deliver Brexit, and on the Conservative side, there were those who disliked Labour’s key demand for a customs arrangement with the European bloc.
Asked whether he could do business with someone like Johnson as prime minister, Corbyn told the BBC, “Whoever the Tory Party decide is going to be the leader, we will put our case, and we will challenge them.”